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The 5 Most Important Linux Projects of 2012

Mageia Linux

Mandrake Linux was my best early experience with Linux, way back in the last millennium, back when literal floppy disks roamed the Earth and 4 megabytes of RAM was riches. Back then you could buy boxed sets of Red Hat Linux in stores, and Red Hat was popular as a desktop Linux. Red Hat had good printed manuals, but it had one difficulty: it did not support as much hardware as Mandrake, and I had a lot of trouble getting 3D acceleration on my video card. Red Hat didn't support my fancy Promise 66 IDE controller, so I had to connect my hard drive directly to the poky old 33Mhz controller on the motherboard. It didn't like my sound card either.

Mageia

So I tried Mandrake, which was originally forked from Red Hat, and it was a revelation. It recognized all of my hardware, and before I knew it I was playing Tux Racer in utter happiness, with full graphics acceleration and sound.

Mandrake has had many ups and downs since those golden early years. Mandrake lost a trademark lawsuit with King Features Syndicate -- King Features was all worked up that Mandrake Linux infringed on their comic character Mandrake the Magician. So Mandrake became Mandriva, which is a combination of Mandrake and Conectiva. Conectiva was a Brazilian-based Linux company that Mandrake acquired.

There is too much more Mandriva drama to recount here, so let's cut to the chase, and that is Mageia forked from Mandriva in 2010. "Mageia" is a Greek work for "magic", so haha King Syndicate. Mageia has all the Mandrake/Mandriva goodness of old, is polished and well-supported, and has one of the best KDE4 implementations. It has excellent graphical system administration tools, supports KDE4, GNOME3, XFCE, LXDE, E17, Fluxbox, OpenBox, IceWM...in short, Mageia takes the same kitchen-sink approach as Mandrake, and gives you everything Linux has to offer. There is also a nice server version with advanced tools like Puppet, a high availability stack, MariaDB, NoSQL servers, multiple HTTP servers, multiple mail servers...even the server edition has it all.

BtrFS

BtrFS, the advanced Linux filesystem, finally found its way into some production systems this year. SUSE Enterprise Linux is big on BtrFS, and offers enterprise support for it in the latest SLES release.

What makes BtrFS such a big deal? It is designed for large-scale operations, which aren't just big businesses with giant storage servers, but even home users are accumulating terabytes of stored data. BtrFS handles giant volumes and giant files, and just as importantly, it has good administration tools. Some of the features it supports are:

  • Storage pools, for allocating storage volumes dynamically and efficiently. BtrFS pools can span multiple hard disks. (Replaces LVM)
  • Built-in RAID
  • Copy-on-write-- live data are never overwritten, but rather written to a new block before committing the write and changing the pointers.
  • The background scrub process finds and fixes errors on live filesystems
  • Seed new filesystems: Start with a readonly filesystem that is a template for seeding new filesystems. The original is never changed, and changes are written to the new filesystems.

Snapshots, rollbacks, efficient incremental backups, maximum file and volume size of 16 EiB...BtrFS is a true next-generation filesystem. The BTRFS Fun page on Funtoo is a great howto for BtrFS beginners.

Raspberry Pi

I must agree with my colleague Katherine Noyes, who calls Raspberry Pi one of the top innovations of the year. Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized single-board computer that costs $35. Plug in a keyboard, TV or DVI/HDMI monitor, and an SD card with a supported Linux installed (Raspbian is recommended), and you have a little PC all ready to go to work.

Raspberry Pi was originally conceived as an educational computer for kids, and as it evolved into its final design it became irresistible to adults as well. It's a sobering lesson in the chronic roadblock of Free software: open hardware, or the lack thereof. It took three years and a lot of work with hardware manufacturers to bring it to market, and it's still not a completely open device. It relies on closed Broadcom firmware, and the closed ARM platform.

And yet it has a unique advantage -- it is available now, and it has already inspired a large community of hackers, authors, users, and creative types of all kinds putting it to work and learning. Today's enthusiasts are tomorrow's computer scientists, and the more bridges to Linux and FOSS the better.

Debian Linux

It is fun to play with the steady stream of new things that are birthed every day in Linux-land. New distros! New desktops! New desktop wars! New filesystems, science, art, security, games, programming languages, all this newfangled mobile stuff-- it's a never-ending feast.

And yet the bedrock of all of this is not discarded and re-invented every time somebody gets bored, but continues on a steady path of iteration and improvement. Debian is one of the two fundamental Linux distributions from which most others are born. Ubuntu, Mint, Mepis, Knoppix, DouDou, aptosid, Raspbian, Crunchbang, Damn Small Linux, and Dream Studio are just a few. If you look at the Debian family tree you see that Ubuntu and Knoppix have been influential and inspired many descendants.

http://www.debian.org/Pics/spacefun.png

Debian was the first to have a dependency-resolving package manager, apt-get. Dependency conflicts are rare in these here modern times, but back in the olden days knowing how to untangle dependency conflicts was a necessary skill. Debian's system for satisfying the needs of users who want just Free software on their systems, and users who need some proprietary software ingenious and still the best: Free and non-free are sorted into separate repositories, so it's dead easy to control what goes on your system. Kernels and packages are typically not modified very much, and so they track their sources closely. Debian is huge; it supports more hardware architectures and packages than any other distribution.

The Debian community is a long-running experiment in pure democracy, though some call it anarchy. Whatever you call it, its development and release methodologies are formal and disciplined, it has a constitution, elected officers, and formal procedures for making decisions. Everyone is an unpaid volunteer, and Debian is always available for free. It's a first-rate distribution known for stability and reliability.

Red Hat

Red Hat is the other foundational Linux distribution, and the wonderful Wikipedia supplies us with a complete Linux family tree. Red Hat occupies an opposite niche from Debian: it is a commercial enterprise distro. Red Hat the company has been a major financial supporter of Linux from their inception, paying developer salaries and funding a considerable amount of development. They have purchased several proprietary software companies over the years, for one example Qumranet, and opened the code. Qumranet became the KVM open-source hypervisor.

Once upon a time in the last millennium you could buy boxed sets of Red Hat Linux in stores, and download free .iso images. Then the company changed direction to focus on the enterprise. Red Hat 9 was their last retail desktop, the name changed to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and they went to more conservative release cycle. Fedora Linux replaced Red Hat Linux as their community release, with shorter release cycles and newer, even bleeding-edge, packages and technologies.

Red Hat is committed to Free software, and so you can get the source code for free. It is packaged in source RPMs rather than a nice easy .iso, so the easiest way to get RHEL for free is to download CentOS, Scientific Linux, or one of the other RHEL clones that package the SRPMs for you.

As you can see in the family tree, the bulk of creative energy these days is in the Debian and Ubuntu branches, while there are fewer Red Hat and Fedora offshoots.

Honorable mentions go to Slackware, Gentoo, and Arch Linux, which are all foundational distros with their own descendants. All three are first-rate distros with hordes of equally-excellent children, and a lot of active development.

What Else?

There are literally hundreds of important and useful Linux projects to choose from. Linux Mint is a beautiful polished distro with one of the best Xfce implementations. Automotive Linux is red-hot, the Humble THQ Bundle raked in over $5 million from eager Linux gamers , Valve Software is rolling out games to Linux,  the Linux kernel continues its amazing success as the ultimate general-purpose operating system kernel of all time, the wealth of high-quality multimedia and artistic programs continues to grow, big distributed science and research projects, supercomputing, mobile, and everything in between. Doubtless you find readers have your own ideas about what the most important Linux projects are, so please share them in the comments.

==========

Edit: What about Android? My thoughts on Android are similar to my colleague Joe Brockmeier's, in The 10 Most Important Open Source Projects of 2011. It's not very open, and it's not intended to be hackable, so projects like CyanogenMod emerge as a workaround to its closed nature. Contrast this with Raspberry Pi, which has some closed hardware components, but it designed to be as open and hackable as possible.

 

Comments

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  • Del Said:

    Android is missing from this list? and cyanogenmod is worth a mention.

  • Ernie Said:

    ...as well as Cr OS Linux, which had a big time this year!

  • ashtonford Said:

    you failed to mention the most important development by the mint team. Cinnamon. Its the future of linux more so than mangeia

  • Leslie Satenstein Said:

    While I dual boot systems with mint and cinnamon and fedora with kde, in the end, my preference is for kde. Who knows. In one years time there could be a big swing to some other gui interface. Gnome could return with something startling good.

  • Sigh Said:

    Sigh - at least Clueless Carla gets one of them right.

  • Microlinux Said:

    I suggest you take a peek at "Linux Cookbook" and "Linux Networking Cookbook" by Carla Schroder, both published at O'Reilly's. Then consider your statement again.

  • jymm Said:

    I appreciate Carla's articles. If you find her so clueless why do you read her posts? Do you write for anyone, I would love to see your clued in work. Maybe just don't be a troll.

  • fewt Said:

    Lets see. Mageia, that project is coming along nicely but it isn't making waves, so 0. BtrFS wasn't even usable in 2012, another 0. Raspberry Pi was important to the community this year so you score a point for that one. Debian and RedHat? Not to discredit their important work, but there have been thousands of more innovative projects this year so 0 and 0. Total score 1/5. Here are 5 projects that actually made a difference this year: #1: Cinnamon - Clem's work is making huge progress towards making GNOME 3 usable. #2: Raspberry Pi - Yep I agree with you there as indicated. #3: Netflix Desktop (Erich Hoover's work) - why? Because Netflix, that's why. #4: MATE - I don't work with MATE personally as it conflicts with my own work on GNOME 2 which started long before their project did, however I have to give them serious credit for picking up the torch and keeping a classic desktop alive. They made a lot of forward progress this year - their work is included in the repositories of several major projects and available as desktop spins for a few of those major distros. #5: SolusOS - Ikey is doing one hell of a job SolusOS, IMHO they made more progress than Mageia edging them out of the list. Your list smells like you had one actual top 5 slot and you just added the other 4 as filler content so you could get an article out there and earn a few more bucks before Christmas.

  • Humble THQ Said:

    THQ bundle? That was windows only!

  • jonc Said:

    I could be easily convinced that Debian and Red Hat are the critically important. I'm less sure I agree that they either has done something in the last 12 months to qualify for the most important of 2012. Red Hat released an update and Debian released an announcement that it was going to release an update. The notion of so-called foundational releases is interesting. Debian has spawned Ubuntu, which spawned Mint, which certainly have made many people happy by focusing on usability and aesthetics much more than Debian ever has. To my knowledge, Red Hat has spawned clones, but nothing that really moves beyond its stable, solid, reliable, but behind the desktop curve code base. Spinning off a foundational distro is limiting because you're dependent on that distribution,

  • lsiebert Said:

    Hmm. ... on BtrFS, isn't there a huge issue with hash collisions?

  • Buzzword Said:

    Perhaps, but the tachyon vectors are more of a real-world threat.

  • Marcus Moeller Said:

    What about enlightenment e17?

  • Kappa Said:

    DreamLinux is dead and everyone in the Debian ecosystem is not an unpaid volunteer.

  • Martin Said:

    Most noticable improvements: - OwnCloud - Samba 4.0 - Android 4.1/4.2 - GIMP 2.8 - OpenStack Most important projects: - Linux kernel - Android - Ubuntu - Red Hat Enterprise Linux - LibreOffice

  • JohnMc Said:

    I could think of a few other Linux mentions that could be candidates for the list -- * Continued development of OwnCloud. Its continued to improve and is a viable alternative for individuals and small companies to use vs stepping into the Cloud. * Btrfs but no ZFS? Tsk. ZFS is a mature architecture in the Solaris world and the fact that it is now available for Linux is worth a mention.

  • Youssef KH Said:

    French Distro Just to know was shocked when i saw this in the top 10 linux distros :)

  • Larry Cafiero Said:

    Excellent list, Carla -- and thanks for striking the Humble Indie Bundle, since one of the main developers said that Linux could FOAD (though I think one game runs on Linux). Glad to see props for Debian.

  • Paul Valley Said:

    I think Another important thing going on right now that's worth mentioning is the fact that a major video editing software is coming to Linux around March is lightworks right now it's in alpha testing with the beta coming out so this will be a huge step forward in video editing for Linux

  • Ernest Said:

    As well as Cr OS Linux, which had a big time this year!

  • Christian Aubry Said:

    Tizen (www.tizen.org) will certainly be listed in The 5 Most Important Linux Projects of 2013 :-)

  • Jefro Said:

    Great article, Carla. Looks like you could expand it to be the top 50 and there would still be a few "but... but..."s :) I would also suggest the Yocto Project (http://www.yoctoproject.org) for developing Linux on embedded systems.

  • Todd Thomas Said:

    littleBits - might be the next step in hardware. Sure it's fun and poppy and cool; sure the bright colors make kids want to play with them, but... All the hardware and drivers are open source. This could turn out to be a cornerstone of an open hardware insurrection over the next 20 years... Or maybe they're just awesome!!! - either way- TT

  • Jameson Said:

    Little late to the party, but I thought I'd dogpile. I see a noticable lack of a few key projects: 1. Wayland reached 1.0 2. Systemd (technically released 2011) 3. Hurd (literally not Linux, but still notable) 4. UEFI workaround (actually released in 2013, but it was huge news in 2012 as it was happening) 5. Firefox OS- Firefox OS Simulator 1.0 released in Dec 2012 I don't understand why RedHat was mentioned so prominently, they didn't do anything particularly noteworthy (sure, I mentioned Systemd, but I was more interested in it getting adopted by other distros, e.g. ArchLinux). I'm more surprised Intel wasn't mentioned, especially since they've been driving Wayland and pushing out some of the best graphics drivers on Linux.

  • sakib Said:

    pls upload ubuntu family tree more pixels

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